Life in the Fast Lane: The Perils of Food Delivery in Serbia

Posted on 08.08.2023
Wolt rider in Serbia

By Branka Andjelkovic

Food delivery through platforms like Wolt and Glovo has become an increasingly popular option for both delivery drivers and consumers across Serbia. Delivery riders now adorn the city streets across the country as consumers are funneled into using these platform technologies to access goods and services. However, working as a delivery driver is a dangerous job, and rises in the number of deliveries have been met with an increasing number of traffic accidents, with delivery cyclists comprising the bulk of this increase. According to the Serbian weekly magazine “Vreme”, in the first five months of this year alone, Serbia recorded a staggering 462 traffic accidents involving cyclists, representing an increase of over 40% compared to the previous year, a statistic confirmed by the Traffic Police Directorate.

To avoid traffic congestion, high fuel prices, and frequent traffic fines, delivery drivers mostly opt for motorcycles and E-bikes. Platforms often give incentives for drivers who make more deliveries, and the rush to achieve bonus rewards for a high number of daily deliveries often pushes them to go faster and take more risks.

Bicycle riders are in a unique position of vulnerability on the roads. They lack the protection afforded by cars and are more at risk of accidents as they are marginalized from the design of urban infrastructure which is built around the needs of motorized vehicles. As part of our Fairwork research this year, we spoke with a lawyer involved in several cases where citizens sue delivery cyclists. They told us that many couriers are untrained in traffic safety exacerbating the situation.

The equipment used by delivery drivers plays a crucial role in their safety. Many workers interviewed by the Center for Research on Public Policies stress that wearing appropriate protective gear, such as helmets, saved their lives during accidents. However, this equipment is not mandatory for cycle couriers. Moreover, due to the small number of bicycle lanes, cyclists are often forced to use the road where motor vehicle drivers treat them as foreign objects or traffic hindrances rather than an integral part of the traffic system. As a result, they resort to using the sidewalk, which then endangers pedestrians.

The plight of cycle couriers in Serbia points to the complexity of the situation that determines working conditions in the urban environment. On the one hand you have the platform, which incentivizes couriers to push their limits, regardless of the weather; snow, rain, or darkness. On the other, you have the regulatory framework that governs the laws around how fast drivers can go.

Various actions have been initiated to regulate the speed and use of electric bicycles. The Novi Sad Cycling Initiative, for instance, advocates limiting their speed to 25 km/h, as is already prescribed in various European countries, and restricting their movement on public surfaces. As one worker pointed out, “electric bicycles are practically like motorcycles because they have electric motors or gas, and you can reach speeds of 50-60 km/h without pedaling. And this is how we ride them in Serbia.” Reducing speed and respecting traffic rules are key factors for the safety of cyclists and other road users. In this context, the Public Policy Research Center organized a discussion within the Fairwork research project on the need for a new Traffic Safety Law concerning delivery drivers. What we need is joined up thinking, that looks at the different ways in which workers actions are encouraged and constrained.

In an effort to address this increasingly serious issue, the Traffic Safety Agency has initiated actions to regulate this area, while some leading platforms organizing training for their delivery drivers, particularly bikers and cyclists, in collaboration with the Serbian Automobile and Motorcycle Association (AMS). However, it is unlikely that the new Traffic Safety Law will be passed before 2024, leaving us to wonder how many more delivery drivers and other road users will suffer until then?